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Protect Yourself From Dangerous Products

Many recalls fall under the radar. Here’s how to stay on top of them

spinner image man in kitchen startled by potential hazard areas
Ben Mounsey-Wood

Consumers respond to product recalls only about 6 percent of the time. Often that’s because they don’t ever know about them; other times they may not take it seriously, in the belief a company is simply legally protecting itself for a problem that’s popped up only a few times.

But product recalls can be a matter of life and death. In 2019 alone, there were 51,000 deaths associated with unsafe consumer products, according to the government’s Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). A record amount of items — more than 1 billion — were recalled in the U.S. last year. And they aren’t issued lightly: Many manufacturers fight hard not to have to recall potentially dangerous products.

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All kinds of products are recalled every day — not just cars and food, which tend to get the most attention, but also toys, furniture, electronics and kitchen appliances. They can burn, poison, maim, electrocute, start fires or worse.

Even so, you probably won’t hear about the vast majority; most don’t make news headlines or pop up online. On Nov. 3, the day I happened to start researching this column, 10 new recalls were listed on cpsc.gov, one of the six government sites that post recalls. The alerts included a portable charging station that could explode and a pair of toxic sneakers. On Nov. 10, the recall list included a generator that has amputated and crushed fingers — and it’s the type I own! (Fortunately for me, when I called the manufacturer, I learned the recall didn’t include models from the year mine was produced.) Given the volume of recalls and the lack of a single information source, it’s not easy to keep track. These tips can help keep you and your family safe.

Register your product. Yes, fill out those little registration cards tucked in product packaging or go to manufacturer websites to register so that you can get recall notices. You can skip any personal questions on the form about age and income. You can usually opt out of getting marketing messages, if that is a concern.

Sign up for email alerts. Recalls.gov provides links to government websites that will email you about recalls. They include sites run by the CPSC, which regulates household products such as appliances, clothing and furniture; the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which covers auto-related recalls; the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which regulates meat, poultry and egg products; and the Food and Drug Administration, which regulates all other food, as well as drugs, cosmetics and other health products. You can also check your favorite retailer and grocery stores for recall listings. Walmart, Dollar General, Target and many other chains list them.

Research secondhand goods. If you shop at thrift stores, flea markets or garage sales, always check to see if items of interest have been recalled. Also check that database if you buy from an unknown or individual seller online. Keep in mind that even if you’re shopping on a big retail site like Amazon or Walmart, you could still be buying from a small or overseas vendor through third-party marketplaces.

Check for auto recalls regularly. Don’t assume you’ll get a recall notice in the mail, warns CheckToProtect.org, a program of the National Safety Council that provides recall information. In addition to alerts on vehicles, the site offers a list of dealers for recall repairs. You also can check for recalls at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s website.

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Respond quickly to notices. Recall remedies are free, and it doesn’t pay to wait. That’s particularly true for motor vehicles, since ignoring a recall can lead to costly damages and pose serious risks. CheckToProtect.org reports that more than 50 million vehicles on the road have unresolved safety recalls.

Report problems. Understaffed and hobbled by restrictions, the CPSC can take years to get an unsafe product recalled, or never gets around to it at all. Some companies try to avoid issuing recalls despite injuries, deaths or tests that reveal dangerous product flaws; they’ll often argue that a product doesn’t pose a widespread hazard, in the hopes of staving off lawsuits, bad publicity and other threats to their profits. So if you think a product in your home is unsafe, report it and check for complaints. For many consumer products, go to SaferProducts.gov; for food, visit FoodSafety.gov; and for cars, check out nhtsa.gov. “It’s really important to report incidents,” says William Wallace, associate director of safety policy at Consumer Reports. “That’s one of the top reasons recalls happen.”

Fix the product or get rid of it. If you have a recalled product, stop using it and contact the manufacturer. Instead of sending you a replacement, it may send a repair kit and instructions for fixing the problem yourself, Wallace notes. If you need to dispose of a product, do so properly so that other people, including children, cannot access it.

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